I climb the North Wall of the mountain like a spider, clasping my rope on shiny pitons left behind by older expeditions. The sun warms my neck; a breeze softly laps my face. The air is thin, but the atmosphere is wonderful. I suck it in, loving it. ‘As if in paradise,’ I keep repeating to myself.
The sky is starting to turn orangey red, and a beautiful blue: ultramarine blue. I’ll need to start hurrying; it will be dark soon and at this altitude the weather might change for the worse. But that seems unimaginable. As I climb I stick my foot into a crevice. It turns a bit, but the thick rubber sole of my climbing boot stays put. I clasp my rope on a hook, but it breaks off completely. I lean dangerously back. The adrenaline shoots through my veins and in a reflex I throw myself back against the mountain, and try to grip on to anything that sticks out.
I notice that the piton above me has a rusty patch. Then I notice that all the pitons above me are rusty.
‘Fuck,’ some amateur must have left them, using amateur gear. Why didn’t I take my own pitons, ‘… the fecking eejit I am. And, only to save that bit of extra weight?’
By now it isn’t only getting really dark, but those damn pitons are crumbling like biscuits in my hands.
‘I’m not going to make it…’ I sigh, and wipe the sweat from my forehead while resting my cheek against the cold skin of the mountain. ‘Please don’t let me fall,’ I whisper, ‘help me reach your top.’ I’m gasping for air… for oxygen. My heart is begging for it, throbbing and trembling and… oh I want to calm down, think over my other options. The blood gushes through my veins, sometimes I think I can hear the heartbeat of the mountain throbbing against my cheek … even feel it, but the throbbing is my own heartbeat, everything I touch seems to vibrate with life, even this gigantic piece of dead rock.
I only have a few feet to go… ten… twelve at the most, but I’d have to free-climb it. From the top of the face I could walk the rest of the way. What should I do?’ Take the risk of falling or should I go for safe and return to camp?
Why did I leave so late this morning? It has turned bitter cold. My legs hurt from standing on a ledge of a couple of inches, but there’s nothing larger.
I think of my friend waiting for me in the tent. What would he do? ‘Jesus, what’s wrong with me?’
I look up, can’t distinguish the top of the mountain anymore; darkness descending faster than I had anticipated. I switch on the light of my helmet; still too dark to see. Beneath me I can’t distinguish any light either. Obviously the light can’t poke through this dense blackness.
The last bit I can walk, I’m leaning back because of the steepness of the sloop, but at least I can walk and with my back to the mountain. I have had enough of it. I really want to run, but my legs won’t speed up, so I stumble like a drunk and try to walk back to our tent. I call out his name, but my voice is too weak, it sounds more like whispering. I clear my throat and try to swallow. My mouth is dry; my tongue doesn’t react, and lies paralyzed between my teeth. I stumble, my feet getting in my way, I fall over and land on all fours. A piercing pain shoots through my kneecaps into my legs and body. I must have broken them on the sharp edges of the rocks. Getting up will be too painful. But crawling back is not an option.
I get up, slowly stretching my legs, snorting like a horse in pain, and try to walk.
I pull at the zipper, holding it between my swollen frozen fingers. The whole tent is pulled to this one point, and the zipper slowly opens.
Everything inside is arranged exactly as I left it this morning; no food has been eaten, no snow been melted for drinking. Gor is still in his sleeping bag; his face invisible, wearing his gear like a shroud.
‘Man,’ I say… ‘Are you alright?’
I open his zipper and stroke his hair from his face so that I can see his eyes. He opens them slowly. I can feel the cold crawling into me, through my skin… into my guts like a frozen parasite. ‘Gor, I shouldn’t have left you alone… I’ll make tea, that’ll make you feel better. You’ll be as right as rain in no time, don’t worry.’
His lips move, air escaping them, but empty air no voice filling it. I try to understand what he is trying to tell me but can’t. I lean over and listen, my ear close to his mouth. His breath feels cold, ice-cold, as it touches my skin.
‘Did you make it?’ he whispers. ‘Can we go home… now?’
I look into his hollow eyes. They are as if they have already been taken by death. I choke; the palms of my hands start to sweat. His mouth is still moving, but I can only hear those words in my head. I hesitate. ‘Yes, I made it.’
He seems to calm down. He wanted it too. ‘I did it for the both of us,’ I tell him. But I don’t know… I panic and shout, ‘Gor, I should have never left you alone. Please be okay. I’ll make tea, warm you up, please be okay, come on man, please be okay. I’ll never force you again, come on man. You wanted it too.’
His eyes roll in their sockets. His soul is about to leave his body that’s what his eyes look like, empty hollows.
I must have been on my knees, beside him, for hours. Sunbeams play like toddlers on the silvery shell. Finally I crawl into my sleeping bag and fall asleep, tossing and turning; the sleeping bag closing in on me, wrapping me up tightly.
In the distance I hear someone pulling at a zipper, and someone talking. Slowly the words become clearer.
‘Everything okay inside?’ he repeats.
‘Eh…’ I scrape my throat, ‘I feel awful… pretty damn awful…’
I look up and see a man with the hood of his jacket pulled tightly in around his face, the drawstring knotted on his chin just under his lips, a huge lush beard tumbles like puke over the front of his red jacket. He crouches by the opening of the tent.
‘It’s very late, have ye been up already?’
‘Yeah, yesterday. We only got back last night.’
His brown eyes start to sparkle.
‘God almighty… all the way to the top, by this route, via the north face?’
He looks at me closely as if to read my eyes. I look straight back at him, ‘My climbing partner and me, we,’ stressing the word we. ‘We reached the top yesterday.’
He is visibly disappointed.
He says, ‘Me and my mate had hoped… we thought that we would be the first to reach it by this route.’
We weren’t the first either. There were pitons left behind… fucking rusty pitons.’
‘And was it beautiful?’ he asks, ‘was it magical, heavenly? Incomparable to anything else, was it a-once-in-a-lifetime experience?’
‘It was okay.’
‘Okay. Okay.’ He calls out the last okay with a smile to his friend as if I’m telling jokes.
I’m not. How could I be with Gor dying on me during the night? I unzip my sleeping bag and roll out with painful knees; my muscles ache, and the man still laughing and standing in the way, not even trying to help me. I want to pass him, want to get out of the tent, but he’s blocking the way. He taps me on the shoulder. ‘Shouldn’t you wake him?’ he says while he points at Gor.
‘Yes, Gor,’ I whisper, and then louder, ‘Gor.’
‘Strange name, Gor, a foreigner, not one of us?’
‘Gor is his nickname… it’s short for gorilla. His friends called him that because of his back… bend like a gorilla’s… and his long arms… but he can climb like the rest of us.’
‘Gorillas can’t climb can they?’
I look at his face, is he having me on? ‘I really need to piss. You wake him?’ I say.
I don’t wait for him to answer me; I just push past him, get out of that hell hole. I feel his hesitation, but ignore it. Outside I straighten my back, stretch out with my arms spread out, and walk a good bit away so I can be alone. On the way to wherever I’m going I run into his climbing mate. He doesn’t look like a friendly person. I ignore him too.
Paths zigzag over crumbling rocks; snow like whipped cream cover mountaintops. Clouds drift by, some of them pink, some yellow, some greyish, Walt-Disney-like. The sun stings my eyes. Tears start to roll down my cheeks.
A hand touches my shoulder. The man with the beard looks at me, questioningly. ‘You already know, don’t you?’
‘Yes,’ I mumble. I try to avoid his staring eyes. He puts his arm around my shoulders and sits down allongside me.
‘We’ll help you bury him in the snow, and then we’ll take you back to base camp.’
‘You don’t have to change your plans for me,’ I say, ‘I’ll manage don’t worry. I’ll be okay.’
‘No, that’s out of the question. Being alone at this altitude could be the death of you too. God, I don’t want that on my conscience. And Jesus we wanted to be the first via this route.’ He scratches his beard pensively, and then says, ‘We’ll take you down safely, and that’s the end of it.’
I stay quiet.
We abseil. The sun strokes my back. It rains debris and water and rocks the size of tennis balls, fast as bullets missing me by only inches. I feel hot, terribly hot. My climbing gear clinging to my back; my scarf strangling me; my fingers bleeding.
The sunlight is blinding. From the corner of my eye I see black shadows fluttering like ashes on the wind. I can’t see properly but I can feel its feathery edges stroking my face and neck. I try to push whatever it is away.
‘Fuck off!’ I scream. ‘leave me alone.’
My hand reaches its soft body. It screams… excruciatingly loud. I lose my balance and fall backwards. My ears gurgling, pebbles falling down with me, hitting the rocks and rattling down the mountain disappearing into its depths. Any moment now the safety rope will support me, break my fall… I keep thinking that, the safety rope will save me. My jaw freezes. I start breathing shallowly, the safety rope will save me… the safety rope will save me. Finally, the rope catches my fall; and saves me.
I spiral… dangle… twist… sway… hanging on the end. I slowly look up. A bird, sitting on the edge of the cliff, looks straight at me. I look down. It is as if I’m hundreds of feet higher than before falling, as if the ground was sucked away.
The bird is still looking at me. It rolls its head back into its neck and opens its beak and starts to scream even louder. It jumps up, spreads out its wings, all the while screaming and starts to glide in my direction. The hook that supported me is giving way as if the bird’s screeching somehow makes the hook come loose. It scrapes, and screeches and is being pulled out of the crevice it has so carefully been hammered into. Then, it completely breaks off. I fall with the rope slithering behind me. Screaming, but no voice coming from my throat, only a kind of gurgling. I choke. And that fecking bird keeps flying circles around me, and screaming… screaming… Deafening me.
I wake up by the sound of the doorbell, soakt in sweat, wrestling the sheet. My head feels as if a spoiled brat is pounding it with a wooden hammer. The doorbell rings again. I get out of bed, walk over to my front door and take a look through the peephole. It’s fucking John. Dressed only in my boxers and scratching my armpit with the feeling as if I was going to be sick, I open the door.
‘God all mighty man, you look awful. Having that nightmare again, about that bird, the vulture?’
‘Same one,’ I say, and then to change the subject I try to smile and say, ‘Ah, John, you’ve got rid of that fucking beard… looking great man.’ I pretend that I haven’t seen him since, patting him on the back, easing him in. I don’t want the neighbours to see me.
He pulls a face and waves his hand in front of it, smiling. ‘My God man, your breath—‘
I close the door behind him. Trying to keep my breathing to a minimum. Tasting that foul taste, wondering whether my tongue has started to rot too. John walks ahead of me into the living room. He notices the empty scattered whiskey bottles. They’re my lifesavers I want to say, but I don’t. I gesture to the couch. He shoves old newspapers to the side, but then sits on them anyway.
‘Go take a shower,’ he says, ‘I have a surprise for you. And it will make you feel way better.’ He smiles, crosses his legs, leans back and spreads his arms over the back of the couch.
‘Surprise?’ I say.
‘Yep, go brush your teeth. And wash your mouth out with soap.’
‘Ah, shut the feck up.’
‘What’s the surprise?’ I ask, when we get into his car.
‘Just wait. You’ll love it.’
He turns on the radio and drives away with screeching tires. Because of the loud pop music, his driving style and my hangover, words aren’t exchanged.
‘It’s just around the corner,’ he finally says and parks the car.
‘Television studios?’ I ask, ‘are we going to see The Talk Talk Show… Bob Brian?’
‘No, way better,’ he says smiling. ‘Come on let’s go in.’
It’s like they were expecting us. Our coats are taken. And we are offered drinks. I order a double whisky and a beer, John just a beer. We are directed with our glasses still in our hands to a back room.
‘Someone will be over in a minute… for the makeup,’ says a girl with a dimple in her chin. She closes the door behind us.
‘What’s fucking going on?’ I hear a tremble in my voice.
‘I have a plan and you’ll earn some cash doing it,’ he says. ‘All you have to do is tell your wonderful story.’
‘Tell my “wonderful” story… What bloody fucking wonderful story are you on about?’
John isn’t taken back in the least by my reaction. He just smiles and says calmly, ‘What story do you think?’
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